LONDON, April 11 (Reuters) – As Russian troops fought in Ukraine last month and the West sought global support for sanctions against the Kremlin, South African left-wing firebrand Julius Malema told a crowd he and his supporters would never turn on Russia after its support in the fight against apartheid.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has intensified a global battle for influence that may prove as important as the fighting. It is a confrontation that has seen the Kremlin look to exploit historic relations with emerging states, while the United States and its allies have sometimes struggled to win over the Global South.
The Kremlin has long worked to cement relations with fellow emerging economies of Brazil, India and China, dubbed the BRICs in 2001 by Goldman Sachs. South Africa was formally invited to join that group in 2010, with current president Cyril Ramaphosa echoing recent Russian talking points in blaming the Ukraine war in part on NATO’s eastward growth.
On March 30, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russia’s RT television the BRICS would “be at the centre of a new world order” after the war was over. Russian media say U.S. attempts to persuade developing nations to join sanctions against Moscow will backfire.
The reality is more complex – particularly amid growing evidence of casualties in Ukraine and targeting of civilian areas. Balanced against that, however, are years of long-running resentment against Western nations, from the invasion of Iraq to support for repressive regimes and trade policies seen as fuelling hardships.
It is a trend that extends beyond the BRICS across the developing world, with widespread scepticism of the West long a part of China’s game plan as it grows its economic and political power there. Russia is looking to exploit that further.
The realities of the Ukraine war, however, are also having an effect. On Thursday, the UN General Assembly voted to evict Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, a significant victory for Ukraine, the United States and European allies. Brazil, India and South Africa were among those nations to abstain despite Russian pressure for a “no” vote, while China voted against.
According to Mahmoud Pargoo, research fellow at the Alfred Deacon Institute in Melbourne, nearly 12 percent of Arabic language Twitter posts discussing Russia and Ukraine between Feb. 22 and March 15 also mentioned Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan or the Palestinian conflict, often alleging some form of Western double standards.
A March poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research found 43 percent of Palestinians blamed Russia for the war with Ukraine, compared with 40 percent who blamed Ukraine. However, 57 percent said they believed Western states applied different standards to judge a conflict in Europe compared to that between Israel and the Palestinians.
In Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the food and fuel price spike caused by disruptions to grain and energy supplies is already yielding an economic and political crisis. With both countries increasingly aligned to China, that has produced criticism of the West – but also allegations that recent problems are down to Russia’s military actions and mounting debts to Beijing.
Increasingly blocked from Western internet and TV audiences since the invasion, Russian outlets have been keen to access and fuel these conversations, particularly building on an already strong reach in the Americas. RT en Español has 3.5 million followers on Twitter and 18 million on Facebook, more than their English language RT equivalents.
According to the Atlantic Council think tank’s Digital Forensics Research Lab, RT en Español and the also Russian state-owned Spanish-language Sputnik Mundo were among the 15 most-shared domains for Spanish posts about the invasion on Twitter, often amplifying Russian conspiracy theories such as that recent massacres were faked by Ukraine.
Analysis by British think tank Demos suggests Russia may have deliberately attempted to influence social media conversations in multiple languages across the developing world, tracking hundreds of Twitter accounts whose activity intensified on either Feb. 24 – invasion day – or March 3, with a crucial UN vote. Most delivered a mixture of retweeted anti-Western and anti-colonialist content with pro-Russia and pro-invasion material.
Identified feeds were in multiple languages including Urdu, Sindhi and Farsi. Others were embedded in networks supportive of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and those of former South African President Jacob Zuma, who like his protégé Malema has been an outspoken supporter of Putin throughout the war.
In India, the war has exposed divisions between older and more right-wing Hindu nationalist demographics more likely to have sympathies with Moscow – in part because of its Cold War support for New Delhi – while younger elements are more likely to back Ukraine.
Diplomatic attention on New Delhi has also been intense. Last week, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser for International Economics Daleep Singh became the latest senior official to visit India, following in the footsteps of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland.
Normally a major buyer of Russian arms but not crude oil, India has made it clear it wishes to continue trading with Moscow despite Western sanctions, reportedly buying up oil cargoes at a major discount. But it has not been immune to sanctions – Air India last week announced it was stopping flying to Moscow because it could no longer get insurance.
Brazil’s government has also been under pressure, including from within its political establishment. A week before the invasion, President Jair Bolsonaro visited Putin in Moscow, saying that the two nations stood in “solidarity” and praising the Russian leader.
Days later, Vice President Hamilton Mourao denied Brazil could remain “neutral” and that it would support Ukraine’s sovereignty, angering the president. On April 6, Brazil’s Foreign Ministry said the nations stood “in solidarity” with civilians killed in Bucha on the outskirts of Kyiv, although it stopped short of blaming Russia.
On Friday, U.S. President Joe Biden made his latest call to South Africa’s Ramaphosa, again pressuring him to join a united front on Ukraine. On Sunday, Ramaphosa told a political rally the tone of the call was “warm” – but there was no shift in policy. The battle for international influence is very far from over, and Washington can ill afford to overplay its hand.
*** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)